Expressing God’s character: Righteousness

Eph 6 14: “put on the breastplate of righteousness”.

We are to put on, to clothe ourselves, with the armour of God: to wrap truth around our waists. And to put on the breastplate of righteousness. That’s our text for today. So what is “righteousness”, and how does it keep our thinking and deciding safe and healthy?

William Tyndale
Public Domain image

The English word was actually first used by the Bible Translator William Tyndale, who adapted the existing word “rihtwis” or right-ways. But I kind of wish he hadn’t: “rightways” says it simply and accurately:

“Righteousness” means justice or moral rightness, or the fulfilment of the Law. Doing what God wants. It means being “rightways” in our relationship with god and our dealings with others. And what does God want? Sacrifices? Religion? Sabbath-keeping? Rituals? There were times when God’s people thought that stuff would swing it. They seemed to think (as we do sometimes) “God must be really into religion: he must really like sacrifices, and hearing our hymns or praise-songs, and to see people fasting.” But God’s not that petty and small-minded. He says “I hate your festivals ….” (Isa 1. 14)

  • Amos 5. 24. Let judgement run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream 
  • Micah 6. 8. God requires righteousness in us.
  • Isaiah 57. 15-17 says “The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head.”

So God is the first person to arm himself with a breastplate of righteousness!

But in the end, our righteousness is insufficient to God’s standard. It’s filthy rags (and that means menstrual rags, used sanitary products: its a crude and disturbing image of ritual and literal unclean-ness (Isa 64. 6). And yet, still, in the time of Jesus, people thought they could get God in their side, by doing things for him: the trivial things like sacrifices, hand-washing, Sabbath-keeping. But true righteousness is not legalism. It’s bigger than that. Jesus had a problem with people who thought they were so good. He says “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter God’s Kingdom.” (Matt 5. 20) And when Jesus was criticised for befriending Matthew (who as a tax-collector was seen as a “bad guy”) he said “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9. 13).

Paul builds on that by distinguishing between our own righteousness, and the righteousness that God gives us when we trust in Jesus. Everything else (including our own righteousness) is garbage, compared with having new life and God’s righteousness. (Philippians 3:9) Righteousness, he says, is God’s gift (Romans 5:17) God has dealt with our sin through Jesus and sees us as new people in him. But there is more to it than just a legal transaction, cancelling our debt. Paul also says “Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness (Eph 4. 24). There has to be a transformation. There certainly was in Paul’s life.

Let’s imagine a big lad called George. On Saturday night, he gets into a fight beats a guy up, and disappears before the police arrive. On Sunday morning, he comes to church and is gloriously saved. The pastor tells him that Jesus has wiped his slate clean. Later that day, the police catch up with him, and he’s arrested.On Monday, he is in the magistrates court, charged with GBH. How does he plead? Guilty or not guilty? Clearly guilty.

Fast forward ten years or so. After prison,George, has got his life together, got a lot of prayer and counselling. He eventually went to Bible college and became Pastor of a lively church. One day, one of the other leaders of the Church gets a phone call, from a newspaper reporter. “Hello, we hear your church has a violent criminal as your assistant minster.” if I got that phone call, I would want to say “No we don’t. George has a story to tell, but these days he’s a gentle giant who spends his time caring for people, praying for the sick, and telling them about Jesus.”

That’s what Paul is talking about. Righteousness is both a transaction and a transformation. It isn’t George’s own righteousness that please God. It isn’t his own righteousness that makes him a gentle giant: it’s god at work in him. Right actions spring from being counted righteous. Without the transformation, the transaction is meaningless: it’s a legal fiction.

So how is righteousness a breastplate? Well, what parts of the body are threatened if there is no breastplate? Mainly the heart and lungs. Today we know that the heart is about blood circulation. But that doesn’t help us understand the breastplate of righteousness. Nor does our idea of the heart as the place where we feel emotions. In the Bible, that was further down, in the bowels! The heart was the thought to be the place where we think and desire and decide. And Paul says “put on the breastplate of righteousness. …” A Roman breastplate was either made of large segments, small scales or chain mail, covered the body from neck to waist, protecting the heart and lungs very effectively. Neither a sword or dagger, not an arrow, javelin or stone, was likely to penetrate the breastplate (though you could get nasty and painful bruises unless you had a good thick padded shirt underneath)!

Righteousness, God’s gift of righteousness that transforms the way we live, protects our thinking and choosing. It is part of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 6, Jesus and warns us against worrying about food and clothes or the future. He says in  Matthew 6. 33, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [that we need and worry about] will be given to you as well.” He also says “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be” (v. 21) Michel Green entitles this whole section  “Jesus examines our ambitions.”  He says “our ambition as disciples must be to put God and his Kingly rule at the top of our list of priorities and we shall find that God takes care of the necessities of life.

And Paul says something similar in Romans 14. 17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The context there is the fact that some in the Church believed it was wrong to eat meat that had been used in pagan sacrifices. Others were OK about to eating whatever they wanted. The kingdom, Paul says, is not about rule-keeping or about upsetting others by deliberately breaking the rules. It is about being committed to please God by treating each other right.

The righteousness of God, his Holy Spirit’s action to transform us, arms our hearts, protecting us from desiring all the wrong sort of things. It is a righteousness, living right-ways (as a gift from God) that enables us to be uncompromisingly committed to the Kingdom of God. What do we need to do? Simply put it on. Receive the gift of righteousness. Agree to the transaction that God offers, to count you righteous and co-operate with the transformation that enables you to live “rightways”.


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